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Mike Keneally: Wooden Smoke 2001, Exowax Recordings CyberHome: www.Keneally.com Wooden Smoke by Mike Keneally is a collection of complex arrangements that try to balance progressive chordal progressions and harmonies with listener accessibility. Keneally puts a lot of effort into the compositional aspects of the music on Wooden Smoke which results in some very sophisticated and tasty morsels. It would be difficult to impose a genre on Wooden Smoke, but the chordal structuring may best be described as having jazz foundations that are played with rhythms and chordal arpegiation assimilated from other diverse styles of music. The music is centric to complex and intricate harmonies that are digestible, though this takes some adjustment to the style at first. The focus of the composition is more on harmony than on melody. There is an obvious domination of harmony over melody throughout Wooden Smoke. The style can be characterized as feeling relaxed and unimposing, though the musical composition is intensive and requires attention to follow. And, the playing is also intensive, though the resulting music does not come across as imposing. This is not easy listening, for certain. This music is reminiscent of the early 70s era Jeff Beck and Steely Dan, but is more progressive and involved than these predecessors in the aspect of harmonization and tonal exploration. The playing on this effort focuses more on implementing the complex musical score rather than on showcasing any domination of intrumental technique. Just playing this complicated, constantly changing music is difficult enough, I am sure. The acoustic guitar work on Wooden Smoke is exceptional with the polished mastery of complex chordal phrasings and arpegiation. The acoustic guitar work is very clean and precise as is evident by the unblemished tones that are used to convey the rich compositional content. The piano work is also fairly sophisticated and explores outside of normal harmonization, notably on the track "Haugseth". I did not care too much for the singing or lyrics, but they occurred sparsely enough that I don't think they undermine the musical value inherent in this CD. The sophistication of these musical arrangements could only be dragged down by imposing any lyrical ideas into this music. (But, I admit I have a general disdain for lyricism if it is not of the same caliber as the underlying music.) But, to be fair, the vocals are not really too bad and sound somewhat like Steely Dan. The lead guitar is conspicuously weak and barely present. However, this does not appear to be the focus of this style of music, though I think this could have brought in another dimension that could have proved very interesting. The accessibility of Wooden Smoke to an uneducated audience may be limited. I suspect that this effort is best appreciated by an educated audience comprised of progressive musicians. I say this because I estimate that the genius in the composition in Wooden Smoke is probably wasted on an uneducated audience. So, more simply put, Wooden Smoke is music for musicians with a discriminating ear. I think it is safe to say, at least, that Wooden Smoke is too far into the realm of music theory to ever make the top ten on the pop chart, although I think that for some listeners who enjoy intricate and challenging compositional content that Wooden Smoke might make their top ten list. The compositional content of Wooden Smoke is nothing short of amazing. As far as standouts go on Wooden Smoke, the entire CD is consistent in the quality of music put forth. This is definitely a monumental effort in composition and harmonization. Keneally goes outside with harmonization and makes it work. Not an easy feat to accomplish! Tracks: 1) Hello 2) Bags 3) Haugseth 4) 2001 5) New England 6) Nanny-Ass Crow 7) Dee 'n' A 8) Boom 9) 5 Legs 10) Father's Day 11) Pantomine 12) Machupicchu 13) Wooden Smoke 14) Thanksgiving ~ Christopher Ruel ~ www.ChrisRuel.com
Mike Keneally: Dancing/Dancing With Myself (CD, 79:43/72:53), 2000 Exowax Recordings PO Box 232623 Leucadia, CA 92023-2623 CYBERHOME: http://www.exowax.com “Hey, this sounds like Joe Jackson! No, no, wait a minute… it’s a lost Frank Zappa tune! Yeah, that’s it – it’s… hold up – that’s Adrian Belew! Those guitar stunts could only be done by… err… now what is Dave Matthews doing here? Oh never mind… it doesn’t matter who it is when it’s THIS good!” The above was the conversation that would’ve been going through this reviewer’s head had I not had Mike Keneally’s Dancing CD cover directly in front of me. Well-traveled guitarist Keneally – who’s played with none-too-shabby axemen such as Zappa, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani – has released a CD so electic, so OUT THERE, that you’ll be amazed every song on the album is by the same guy. You’ll also be amazed that the quality of the music remains at quite a high level throughout the entire CD as well. From the “New York City” sounds of the Joe Jackson-esque opener “Live in Japan” to the straight ahead rocker “Backwards Debs” to the Fripp-ish “Taster,” Keneally and his band will take you on a musical journey that hits just about every stop on the rock and roll red line. For Dancing Keneally has assembled an excellent group of musicians (going by the name “Beer for Dolphins”) to back him up – keyboardist Marc Ziegenhagen and drummer Jason Harrison Smith especially stand out from the crowd. However, it doesn’t take long to establish that Keneally himself is the star of this show with his incredible guitar chops in full effect throughout most of the CD. Especially mind-blowing is the “strap on the headphones and turn the mutha up to 11” force behind the fantastic instrumental “Lhai Shal,” which mixes head-banging lead guitar with some wonderfully arranged mallet percussion (I know – it sounds weird, but trust me… it ROCKS!) There aren’t many weak points on Dancing - the only track of the 20 on the studio disc that I felt could’ve been left on the studio floor is “Joe” – a weak ballad that never quite gets off of the ground. But other than that, this disc is pure gold. Once you get to the closing track “Kedgeree” (which sounds more than a little like “21st Century Schizoid Man” at times) you’ll find yourself musically fulfilled and amazed that one man could write songs so different from one another, while still being accessible as well. As I was given the “Special Edition” of Dancing to review, I also received the additional live disc Dancing With Myself, which is sort of a “Mike Keneally unplugged” type recording. Most of the songs on the live disc are just acoustic versions of the studio songs, and without the backing of a full electric band most of these tracks lose a lot of their punch. Only “Backwards Deb” stands out as a song that perhaps improved in the transition. There’s nothing really bad on the disc, just nothing worth shelling out the extra money for the “Special Edition”. The studio disc Dancing is really where all the action is. Mike Keneally succeeds on just about every level on this release – he proves himself to be an efficient songwriter, as well as an excellent guitarist who can switch styles at a moment’s notice without losing any momentum whatsoever. Dancing would be an excellent addition to the collection of someone who loves both fusion AND pop music; actually, it would be an excellent addition to just about anyone’s CD collection! Well done, Mike! CREDITS: Mike Keneally: Vox, Lead Guitar Bryan Better: Bass Marc Ziegenhagen: Keyboards Jason Harrison Smith: Drums Evan Francis: Alto sax, Flute Chris Opperman: Trumpet Tricia Williams: Percussion Rick Musallam: Guitar TRACKLIST: DISC ONE: "Dancing" 1. Live in Japan (4:46) 2. Ankle Bracelet (4:35) 3. Poo-Tee-Weet? (0:42) 4. Backwards Deb (5:35) 5. We'll Be Right Back (8:16) 6. Joe (4:45) 7. Pretty Enough for Girls (6:47) 8. Taster (4:51) 9. Dancing (2:53) 10. Selfish Otter (4:15) 11. Only Mondays (2:03) 12. Lhai Sal (2:23) 13. The Mystery Music (2:26) 14. The Brown Triangles (2:13) 15. MM (0:31) 16. I Was Not Ready For You (3:20) 17. Ragged Ass (4:16) 18. Skull Bubbles (3:58) 19. Friends and Family (3:56) 20. Kedgeree (7:12) DISC TWO: "Dancing with Myself" 1. I Was Not Ready For You (6:32) 2. Lonely Man (4:39) 3. Friends and Family (3:48) 4. Joe (5:51) 5. Live in Japan (4:50) 6. We'll Be Right Back (6:15) 7. I Will (1:30) 8. Apple Pie (1:09) 9. Backwards Deb (4:46) 10. Ankle Bracelet (5:59) 11. Dancing (3:20) 12. Lhai Sal (5:31) 13. Pretty Enough for Girls (6:24) 14. Only Mondays (2:33) 15. Kedgeree (9:46) More information on Mike Kennealy can be found at http://www.exowax.com - Michael Askounes (email@example.com)
Mike Keneally - Nonkertompf (1999, Exowax) Cyberhome: www.keneally.com Guitarist/keyboardist/singer Mike Keneally has toured and recorded with Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, in addition to releasing seven records of his own music, solo and with his band Beer for Dolphins. The seventh, Nonkertompf, is a 74 minute instrumental journey divided into 35 "chapters," with Keneally on guitar, piano, keyboards, sax, bass, drums, and everything else you hear screaming out of your speakers.
Nonkertompf varies widely in the style and texture of the chapters. Acoustic guitar and clean piano provide light sonic contrast to the driving electric guitars and weird, dissonant synth figures. The transitions from theme to theme are often abrupt but never gratuitous. Keneally's sonic imagination is boundless, including scat scratch vocals doubling the guitar riff in chapter 22, "I love it here." Keneally playing shines on all instruments, as only the drumming in places suffers from the touch of a neophyte, an impressive achievement given the stylistic range that the playing covers.
The music of Nonkertompf evolves like a good party - it starts smoother and more coherent, like those pleasant but subdued small conversations between the first handfuls of guests while the house is still mostly empty. It builds as the party fills up, more people pack in shoulder to shoulder, and they have to shout over the music and noise to be heard. Things grow wacky and scattered toward the end, when it's late and people get wild and freaky, and then there's the surreal exhausted quiet as the party breaks up and everybody heads home, trying to see straight.
Keneally's peculiar and relaxed sense of humor breathes an air of freshness into the project, since it is obvious that music is most important, and not ego or forced weirdness just to be fashionable or elite. The presentation verifies that the music and style are all Keneally, an originality rare in instrumental guitar music.
Keneally's work is difficult to describe because of its unique originality. The challenging listen of Nonkertompf makes it probably a difficult starting point for new listeners, but old fans will enjoy it immensely, and new fans might find significant rewards in working through its experimentation.
Reviewed by Scott Andrews [sha3u@Virginia.edu]
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